AMPD professor Sundar Viswanathan takes home a JUNO 

Sundar Viswanathan - Avataar
An early photo of Avataar performing at the MiST Theatre at the University of Toronto – Mississauga. Photo by: Eric Benchimol

Sundar Viswanathan and his band Avataar, were presented with this year’s Jazz Album of the Year: Group at the 2022 JUNO Awards.  

Avataar received Jazz Album of the Year: Group at the 2022 JUNO Awards. Photo credit: The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS)
Avataar received Jazz Album of the Year: Group at the 2022 JUNO Awards. Photo credit: The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS)

Avataar is led by multiple JUNO-nominated saxophonist/flutist and composer Viswanathan, who is an associate professor and jazz area coordinator in the Department of Music at the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design. 

The band is a dynamic world-jazz ensemble that seamlessly melds the music of India, Brazil, and modern jazz with atmospheric landscapes and world grooves. Cleverly layered and cinematic in scope, the music drives and swirls through a vast sonic palette. The group received a JUNO for their album Worldview, which was released in October 2021.  

Band members include Felicity Williams (vocals), Michael Occhipinti (guitars), Justin Gray (bass and bass veena), Ravi Naimpally (tablas and percussion), Max Senitt (drums and percussion) and special guests on Worldview, Todd Pentney (piano and synth) and Aaron Lightstone (oud).  

“This is our first JUNO and nomination,” says Viswanathan. “Sometime in April I got the news that we were nominated, and I was very surprised, pleased and happy and just overwhelmed to simply be nominated.”  

Viswanathan notes the music he writes is relatively eclectic and his songs are not like traditional swing jazz. “It is inclusive of so many things – jazz is one of these things that is one of the most evolving art forms and it’s welcoming of everything – that is how I look at music.” 

He is musically inspired by artists like John Coltrane, John McLaughlin, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Ornette Coleman and is also moved by world events which not only spark personal connections but become the foundation of what music he writes.  

Worldview is a musical commentary on the state of the world, the pandemic, and the inability of leaders to lead with integrity, honesty and compassion. Some of the songs are responses to the treatment of children, the most valuable and vulnerable citizens, and act as vehicles of catharsis for the composer. The song Little Kurdi is a lament and memorial for three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, who washed up on shore in Turkey, after a boat carrying refugees sank off the coast. The song, Innocents (12/14/12), is a dedication to those who were murdered in Sandy Hook in 2012, tragic victims of gun violence.  

“I write what I’m hearing. It comes from meditating on a feeling, what I’m thinking about, inspired by and it comes from the centre of the heart,” says Viswanathan.  

Recognizing similar tragedies continue to occur around the world, he notes the songs are a reminder of the human emotions felt and experienced through moments when humanity is most vulnerable. The pieces created for the album comment on the honesty and fragility of children faced with a world of uncertainty and confusion created by adults.  

“I feel the urge to express them through sound and music, and these feelings translate into melody. We need to come together and work together to make the world a better place for our children and other things, we are all connected. At the end of the day, if I can make a difference in my music, that’s what I’m meant to do.” 

Avataar band members Justin Gray, Sundar Viswanathan, Max Senitt and Michael Occhipinti at the 2022 JUNO Awards. Photo credit: CARAS

Avataar’s first album Petal debuted in 2016. The band is also a winner of a 2016 TD Special Projects award from the Toronto Jazz Festival. Viswanathan is also an integral member/composer of the twice JUNO-nominated world band Jaffa Road. This group was also the recipient of a Canadian Folk Music Award and a grand prize winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Competition. 

After attending the Juno Awards ceremony earlier in May, Viswanathan notes the JUNO is a testament to the music the band has created for the past decade. “To be recognized as an artist, a group after all the hard work you put in is a good feeling.”  

Raised in northern Ontario and bullied throughout grade school, Viswanathan reflects on his younger years and how his experiences of being verbally and physically targeted by classmates for his size and skin colour was something he got used to when he was younger, but he chooses to no longer let his past define his life today.  

Standing on stage to claim his first JUNO was a self-fulfilling moment for Viswanathan. Reflecting on how the pain and struggle that he endured as a young child is a similar story to others who are treated unfairly, or experience a tough upbringing, Viswanathan notes this moment in his career and musical journey were not only a sign of reassurance but a testament to always believing in oneself.  

“This was proof to get over things, and I saw it as being seen. If you stick to what you’re doing and everyone is trying to push you off the horse, you stay on it and things will come to you,” he says. Inspired to create music for future generations and watching the world through the eyes of his own children, Viswanathan notes there is an important lesson for children to know and understand the importance of fulfilling their own path.  

“Even through adult years, the journey continues. Later, you will look back and find something that is your passion and moves you and you will do great things. All those failures are steppingstones to success. I always tell my students this quote, ‘the road to success leads directly through the dump.’”